FEATURE: Kara Walker. “One of my earliest memories involves sitting on my dad’s lap in his studio in the garage of our house and watching him draw. I remember thinking: ‘I want to do that, too.’”

Social and politically charged art has a controversial curiosity to it. Like the driver that slows down when passing a crash, even the most turned off viewers can’t help but look. Regarding this, the desire on behalf of the artist is usually to make a visual point using a socially shocking or upsetting but real topic to keep the viewer absorbed. In today’s art world where much is accepted, it is interesting find some artists still capable of alarming their audience to attention. Kara Walker is one such artist, who has managed to merge traditional style with pointed content that has amazed some and repulsed others.

Themes of social, cultural, and racial stereotypes dominate Walker’s stylistic cutouts. Applying the ideas of power, repression, and sexuality in a historically recognizable form of artistic text she is able to address the overall human experience using a visual exaggeration of historical content. Her main media choice, cut black paper in silhouetted narratives, has been typically considered a “women’s art” in its earlier history. The Victorian styled silhouettes she uses grew from the popular eighteenth century French tradition. Usually life-size, they are displayed by Walker on stark white walls. Her largest U.S. exhibition at the Whitney Museum, titled, “Kara Walker: My Complement, My Oppressor, My Enemy, My Love”, featured images of a woman crouching, who appears to be defecating babies. A man fl oats in the air nearby by his enlarged genitals, helplessly. Walker emphasizes the woman’s large breasts and exaggerates the buttocks. The broadcasting of these stereotypes has enraged even local artist communities. Betye Saar, a fellow artist and African-American, publicly criticized Walker for “propagating negative stereotypes” (washingtonpost. com).

“I pretty much decided then and there…that I was an
artist just like Dad”

An African-American herself, Walker predominantly uses traditional silhouette portraiture and blends it with harsh scenes of suggestive stereotypes. Her strong points of view relate her experiences as a Black American and artist. She describes growing up, “One of my earliest memories involves sitting on my dad’s lap in his studio in the garage of our house a n d w a t c h – ing him draw. I remember thinking: ‘I want to do that, too,’ and I pretty much d e c i d e d then and t h e r e … that I was an artist just like Dad”.

Having an artist for a father creates a direct artistic lineage by which we can associate her early inspirations. Born in 1969 in California, she moved to Atlanta, Georgia with her family at age thirteen, when her father, artist Larry Walker, accepted a new job position at the state university. While California showed a strong influence of local black power and pride, the South was less welcoming. The geographic difference in social treatment came as a shock to the teenager, and subsequently became a running theme in her work. By 1994 she had a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts, and became the youngest recipient ever to receive the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius” Grant. This was the beginning of her controversial work.

“You keep creating a monster that swallows you.”

The polite, genteel techniques that Walker uses contradict her grotesquely stereotyped subjects. One source called her work a “‘Gone with the Wind’ set in Gomorrah” (nytimes.com)

Yet her images differ from other race-based works in that they allow for everyone’s pain, black and white. They admit the baggage of racism and slavery is carried by all, and the weight of history shared. And the nakedness felt by uncensoring these images is what makes viewers uncomfortable. When addressing her themes, Walker has said, “…as soon as you start telling the story… You keep creating a monster that swallows you. But as long as there’s a Darfur, as long as there are people saying, ‘Hey, you don’t belong here,’ to others, it only seems realistic to continue investigating the terrain.” (whitney.org).

Words: Nikki Sclair
Images: Kara Walker
Image of Kara Walker: Cameron Wittig

Social and politically charged art has
a controversial curiosity to it. Like the
driver that slows down when passing a
crash, even the most turned off viewers
can’t help but look. Regarding this, the
desire on behalf of the artist is usually
to make a visual point using a socially
shocking or upsetting but real topic to
keep the viewer absorbed. In today’s art
world where much is accepted, it is interesting
find some artists still capable
of alarming their audience to attention.
Kara Walker is one such artist, who has
managed to merge traditional style with
pointed content that has amazed some
and repulsed others.
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